In recent years, the attention of the American Religious Right has recently turned away from classic Creationist hokum. Normally, I'd think that was a good thing. Unfortunately, the Religious Right has merely transfered from classic Creationism to a neo-Creationist pseudoscience known as Intelligent Design. Most recently, the Ohio Board of Education has been asked to approve Intelligent Design for inclusion in high school biology classes. In order to understand what the ideas of Intelligent Design really are, it's essential to examine the book that has come to be considered a classic among Intelligent Design's proponents: Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe.
To all those who are tempted to bother with this book, I suggest that you consider the photograph on the cover first. Note the man who stubbornly turns away from his Chimpanzee companion, refusing to acknowledge his existence even though it's clear that he's there. This Chimpanzee has been shown to share over 98% of the human being's genetic material, yet the human won't give him the time of day. That's typical Creationism for you - stubbornly ignoring the facts in favor of prejudicial faith.
At first glance, author Michael Behe appears to be superior to your average Creationist. Wisely, he abandons the most extremely kooky Creationist ideas, like the claim that the Earth and all its inhabitants were created in a week's time just 6,000 years ago and that God created the illusion of radiocarbon dating in order to have fun with the scientific sinners he knew would eventually come along.
As one continues to read Darwin's Black Box, however, it becomes clear that the author still retains his fair share of the kooky flavor of Creationism. The purpose of this book, it turns out, is not to present a clear and objective scientific analysis of the alternatives to classic Darwinian theory, but to desperately defend the Biblical idea that a supernatural intelligent creator (Get it? God!) purposefully designed every tiny little aspect of life.
See, the main idea of this book is that life is just too complicated to have occurred naturally, and that therefore, there is not alternative but to believe that all life was created by an intelligent creator (That's God again, remember?). Of course, the author never bothers to adequately explain where the intelligent creator came from itself. It stands to reason that any entity complex enough to be capable of assembling all of the microscopic and dazzlingly intricate machinery of a biologic cell and then provoke it into life must be pretty complicated itself, much too complicated to have occurred naturally. According to Michael Behe's line of twisted reasoning, the intelligent creator must have had its own intelligent creator, which in turn must have had its own intelligent creator, and on and on forever. This book's supposed scientific theory is really just a fancy version of the phrase "...and then a miracle happened". It explains nothing.
The intracacies of cellular mechanisms cited by this book certainly do require scientific explanation. However, instead of pursuing study of these mechanisms, the author simply makes a declaration that there is no other possible explanation for them than that an intelligent creator (God, God, God!) made them. For Behe, the proposal of intelligent design marks the end of scientific research. The answer, for him, is simple and final, requiring no more consideration: God did it! The critical reader of Darwin's Black Box will note that this claim of divine intervention operates as an excuse to stop scientific research from taking place in the first place. According to Intelligent Design writers, the intelligent creator is the ultimate explanation for everything in Biology, an explanation which requires no more investigation.
The truth is that real scientists never use miracles as a crutch for gaps in scientific knowledge. Only those who misunderstand the basic essence of science critique it because it has not yet reached an understanding of absolutely everything in the universe. A few generations ago, Creationists critiqued the idea of biological evolution because they said that there was a "missing link" between apes and humans. With decades of research, not just one but many intermediate species between ancient apes and modern humans have been discovered. Now, creationists are left with absurd arguments about a "missing link" between archaic Homo Sapiens and modern Homo Sapiens, when in fact transitional fossils between the two species are abundant.
In the five years since Michael Behe published his desperate neo-Creationist rantings about what he calls the irreducible complexity of the biological cell have suffered the same fate as the great fundamentalist hope for the "missing link". The human genome has been completed, along with the genome of many other species, offering an increasingly intricate understanding of how the operations of the human cell are orchestrated by the DNA molecule, which just so happens to be where biological evolution takes place. In addition, work on the human proteome has begun and is already increasing our knowledge of how the genes made up by DNA are translated into action, building the human cell and the entire human body. Evolutionary biologists have made many new discoveries about the development of the biological cell over time, including the evolution of the different organelles. The most basic problem that faces Intelligent Design Creationists is that the gaps in knowledge they base their ideas on keep disappearing.
Of course, the argument that a present-day biological cell is too complex in its mechanisms to have evolved naturally is self-contradictory. After all, the very essence of evolution is the possibility of radical change over long periods of time in aspects of life which superficially appear in the present to be permanent and unchangeable.
The fact is that we cannot tell what the stages in cellular evolution were without examining the fossil record. Unfortunately, fossils that preserve detail at the cellular level are not very common, and it now appears that the earliest stages in the development of the cell would have taken place when Earth was very young, almost 4 billion years ago. It may be nearly impossible to establish with complete certainty the way in which biological cells evolved into their current state of complexity. Does that mean that it's correct to conclude, as Michael Behe does, that biological cells must not be the product of natural events and must have been artificially manufactured by an intelligent creator (God or a space alien - which do you think Behe believes in?) and then set into motion? Thankfully, science does not operate according to the absolutist principles of religion. There are always more than just two possible explanations for any natural phenomenon, and true scientists keep exploring for natural explanations when one theory does not work out. Credible science certainly does not adopt Behe's idea that the complexities of biology can be explained by throwing up one's hands and declaring that God works in mysterious ways.
Ultimately, Intelligent Design ideas are motivated by the terror that God might not exist after all. This terror is reasonable if one has been raised to depend on the absolute truth of a single book such as the Bible. The trouble many Christians still have with evolution is that it shows that belief God and all the other supernatural characters of the Bible just isn't necessary.
The obvious question arises: so what? Science is not supposed to be motivated by terror, by the fear that the facts will contradict our favorite fantasies. This book is thus a quest for rationalizations of religious belief, not science. The author's single-minded obsession with finding any reason at all to believe that God exists puts his ideas of Intelligent Design in the realm of theology.
Unfortunately, some folks, like the Board of Education that determines the curriculum for the entire state of Ohio, have a difficult time telling the difference between genuine science and theological mumbo-jumbo. If the state's Christian fundamentalist zealots have their way, children in all of Ohio's public schools will be taught the theology of Intelligent Design. To spend taxpayers' money in this way, to spread religious ideas based on faulty reasoning, is just plain absurd, and the Ohio Board of Education ought to be ashamed of itself for even considering doing such a thing.
My advice is to leave religious books like Darwin's Black Box for Sunday School. When you want to get serious about the origins of life, you might want to start with another great book instead: The Origin of Species.
Irregular Times require backtalk.